Don Blakeslee’s grit, guts and guidance helped make the “Fighting 4th” one of the finest combat air groups in Europe.
Like his British and Commonwealth comrades in the Royal Air Force, American Don Blakeslee of No. 133 “Eagle” Squadron loved flying the Supermarine Spitfire. He had flown more than 100 sorties in the graceful fighter and been credited with three aerial victories by the time the RAF’s three Eagle squadrons were transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces in September 1942, forming the 4th Fighter Group. To their general displeasure, Blakeslee and the other Americans soon traded their Spitfires for P-47C Thunderbolts.
When Lieutenant James A. Goodson checked him out on the P-47 at the RAF base near Debden, Blakeslee was not at all impressed with the bulky, low-slung “Jug.” To him, manhandling a 7-ton airplane around the sky was a big letdown after the fingertip touch required to fly the Spit. Following his initial flight, Blakeslee groused to Flight Cmdr. James E. “Johnny” Johnson, the war’s leading British-born ace, that the Thunderbolt seemed reluctant to leave the ground and anxious to get back on it.
The largest and heaviest U.S. fighter when it became operational in 1942, the Republic P-47 was initially considered too big, too slow and too unresponsive to survive against Germany’s nimble Messerschmitt Me-109s and deadly Focke-Wulf Fw-190s. RAF pilots looked over the Thunderbolt, shuddered and politely informed the Americans that they were about to die. The men of the 4th and other fighter groups had to be convinced by their commanders that they could survive in the Jug.
In fact, despite its weight and size, the rugged, heavily armed P-47 proved to be highly effective—especially on strafing missions. It was a champion diver, with a good roll rate, a range of 800 miles and an ability to absorb considerable damage and still bring its pilot home. Its armament consisted of six or eight machine guns and up to 2,000 pounds of bombs or rockets. Many of America’s top aces used the Thunderbolt to attain high scores in the European theater.
On April 15, 1943, Blakeslee was leading a 4th Group flight over German-occupied Belgium when they spotted two Fw-190s. He and his comrades attacked and the Germans dived away—followed by the Americans, who quickly caught up with them at 20,000 feet. Blakeslee dived to 500 feet before he managed to down one of the 190s near Ostend. It was the first aerial victory for a Thunderbolt.
Back at Debden, Goodson said to him, “I told you the Jug could outdive them.” Blakeslee grudgingly conceded: “Well, it damn well ought to be able to dive. It sure as hell can’t climb.” He would go on to shoot down two more Fw-190s with his Thunderbolt, but was himself twice badly shot up. On August 16, the 4th Group downed 18 German fighters for the loss of one of its P-47Ds—a preview of what was to come. Although Blakeslee didn’t score in that encounter, much of the group’s success was due to his skillful direction.
Blakeslee, who later took command of the 4th, let his pilots know precisely what was expected of them. “We are here to fight,” he told them. “To those who don’t believe me, I would suggest transferring to another group. I’m going to fly the arse off each one of you. Those who keep up with me, good. Those who don’t, I don’t want them.”
An inspiring commander on the ground, Blakeslee was bold and seemingly fearless in the air.“He was everywhere in the battle, twisting and climbing, bellowing and blaspheming, warning and exhorting,” wrote historian Grover C. Hall. “His ability to keep things taped in a flight with 50 planes flying at 400 miles an hour was a source of wonder.” One of his pilots described him as “George S. Patton Jr. in a P-51 Mustang” (with which the 4th Group was later equipped).
Blakeslee would forge the 4th into one of the most formidable fighter units in the USAAF. By war’s end it had become the top-scoring American fighter group, credited with destroying 1,020 German aircraft—550 in the air and 470 on the ground. Its total surpassed the 992 enemy planes destroyed by the rival 56th Fighter Group, the legendary “Wolfpack” led by Colonel Hubert “Hub” Zemke.
Blakeslee’s personal aerial victory tally—14, one shared and three probables—was relatively modest for someone so long in the war. He admitted that he wasn’t a good shot and needed to fly close to an adversary before opening fire. “Hell, I can’t hit the side of a barn,” he once said, laughing. But then he added: “There’s no sport in it for a guy who can shoot straight. The sport comes when somebody like me has to pull up behind ’em and start shooting to find out where the bullets are going—like spraying flowers with a garden hose.”
When there was a multiple claim in the group, Blakeslee always gave credit to the junior pilots. Though aggressive in the cockpit, he was no glory hunter. Many of his contemporaries believed he actually destroyed at least 30 German planes during his four years in the European theater. With almost 500 sorties and about 1,000 combat hours to his credit, he is believed to have flown more missions and hours than any other American fighter pilot in World War II.
Like many would-be fighter pilots, as a young man Donald James Mathew Blakeslee read stories about RAF Fighter Command’s clashes with the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. He had become fascinated with airplanes as a boy, and he and a friend saved up their earnings from various jobs to buy a Piper Cub in 1939. But after his friend crashed their Cub, Blakeslee headed north in October 1940 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.
In letters to his mother, he assured her that he would become an instructor and forego combat—a fiction he maintained long after he had shot down his first enemy aircraft. Sent to England after completing pilot training, Blakeslee arrived at the RAF station at Digby, Lincolnshire, on May 15, 1941. When the station commander told the young American it was his turn to march the enlisted men to a church service one Sunday morning, Blakeslee protested that only non-flying officers should have to perform that chore. “You’ll do it or else,” the commander told him. “I’m not joking.” Blakeslee answered simply, “I won’t do it”—and that was the end of his assignment at Digby.
Blakeslee was next sent to No. 401 Squadron, RCAF, flying Spitfires from the famous Battle of Britain base at Biggin Hill, southeast of London. He quickly demonstrated his ability, shooting down some German planes during fighter sweeps over northern France. After logging 200 hours in the air, he was told he would have to become an instructor, but despite his promise to his mother, that wasn’t what the young fighter jock had in mind. The only way he could remain on combat status was to join one of the RAF’s Eagle squadrons—Nos. 71, 121 and 133, formed to accommodate a number of American volunteers—although he had previously avoided members of those units. “They were punks,” he confided to a friend.
Blakeslee was assigned to No. 133 Squadron, based at Debden, southeast of Cambridge. On August 19, 1942, during the ill-fated amphibious raid by British Commandos and Canadian infantry on the French port of Dieppe, his squadron provided air support. He shot down a Dornier Do-217 bomber, probably destroyed an Fw-190 and damaged two others. After completing 120 sorties, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Blakeslee and his comrades lived with and fought alongside their British brothers in arms, helping to repel Luftwaffe raiders over England and flying sweeps across the Channel, targeting German installations in France and the Low Countries. The Eagles downed 73 enemy aircraft, and King George VI himself presented British decorations to some of them during a visit to Debden.
In September 1942, as the U.S. Eighth Air Force was building up in England, the Eagle squadrons were transferred from the RAF to constitute the 4th Fighter Group of VIII Fighter Command, led by Maj. Gen. Frank O. “Monk” Hunter. The Eagles formed the 334th, 335th and 336th squadrons, with Captain Blakeslee commanding the 335th. Since American planes were not yet available, they continued to fly Spitfires, painting USAAF stars over the RAF roundels. The Americans knew that sooner or later they would be reequipped with the new P-47s, but in the meantime they flew their beloved Spits as often and as hard as they could.
Their operations involved joining RAF groups on strafing runs, escorting medium bombers and shepherding USAAF B-17 and B-24 heavy bomber formations on the first legs of raids, or picking them up as they left the Continent (the Spitfires were limited in range to northern France and Belgium). During these missions the American pilots gained new respect for the yellow-nosed Me-109s of Jagdgeschwader 2 and 26 that scrambled from airfields at St. Omer and Abbeville Drucat to intercept them. The 4th’s fliers started collectively referring to their foes as the “Abbeville Boys.”
Blakeslee soon established himself as quite a colorful character. Six feet tall, he was square-jawed and handsome, with pale-blue eyes. No one in his group questioned his courage and prowess in the air, but some in the top command harbored doubts about his behavior on the ground. Blakeslee became known for hard drinking and high living, though he never let it interfere with his constant readiness to fly.
On the night before Monk Hunter was scheduled to visit to the base, Blakeslee was entertaining two officers of the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in his room. When the general arrived early for his tour the next the morning, Blakeslee was warned just in time for his two guests to scramble out the barracks window—right into the path of Hunter and his aides. Told by a subordinate that the pilot would be swiftly demoted to first lieutenant and transferred as punishment, Hunter remarked: “For one, maybe; but for two! He should be promoted.” Within a few weeks, Blakeslee was once again a captain, in command of the squadron.
Blakeslee’s men loved him because he spoke plainly and didn’t stand on ceremony. When he was appointed commander of the 335th Squadron, for example, instead of making a big speech he climbed up on the bar in the officers’ club and announced that drinks were on him. Well after 1 that morning, he reminded those still lingering that all pilots should be ready for takeoff at 6 a.m.
Blakeslee sought to motivate his fliers by example rather than instruction, always returning from headquarters strategy sessions in a bad temper. One night he asked Lieutenant Goodson:“Goody, why do they talk so much about strategy and tactics? Hell, what you do depends on what’s happening at that moment. What good’s a strategy when you’ve got three 109s on your arse? What the hell is our strategy?” Goodson’s answer apparently satisfied him: “In 1917, when Von Richthofen was asked that question, he said, ‘Find the enemy and shoot him down—anything else is nonsense.’ I guess it still holds.”
Eventually transitioning to Thunderbolts, the 4th Fighter Group continued its escort and strafing missions, earning an enviable reputation within the USAAF. When the weather was too hazardous for normal operations, two or three pilots would sometimes be authorized to make strafing runs over France and Belgium. They flew at dangerously low levels to avoid German radar and anti-aircraft fire. The RAF called such sorties “rhubarbs,” since the fighters flew so low that their propellers sometimes clipped rhubarb plants on the ground. The 4th’s P-47s attacked enemy railway lines and trains, troop convoys, airfields, supply dumps, port facilities and shipping. The aim was to harass the Germans and boost the morale of the French and Belgian people.
Meanwhile a new fighter had entered the war that would revolutionize the Allied air offensive over Nazi-occupied Europe and Germany itself: the P-51 Mustang. Mounting six wing machine guns and powered by a 1,500-hp Packard Merlin, the sleek P-51 was 35 mph faster than the Spitfire and had nearly twice the range (750 miles), even without external tanks. It could catch up with an Me-109 in level flight or a dive, and hold its own in a dogfight. Luftwaffe pilots would come to regard the Mustang as the best Allied fighter of the war.
In December 1943, the 354th Fighter Group of the Ninth Air Force arrived in England with P-51Bs. Since an experienced leader was needed to introduce the group to combat operations, Maj. Gen. William E. Kepner, who had taken over VIII Fighter Command from Hunter, handed the temporary assignment to Don Blakeslee. As soon as he climbed into the Mustang’s cockpit, Blakeslee knew it was the fighter everyone had been waiting for. After flying a few missions with the 354th Group, in January 1944 he returned to the 4th, where he was promoted to group commander.
When Blakeslee began pressuring Kepner to reequip his squadrons with Mustangs, the general initially opposed the idea. An aggressive bomber offensive was underway, and he believed he could not afford to pull Blakeslee’s group out of action long enough for the pilots and ground crews to familiarize themselves with the new fighters. “How much time can you give us to switch, sir?” Blakeslee asked. Kepner replied, “If the 4th is out of action more than 24 hours, we’re in trouble.” Blakeslee responded, “General, give me the Mustangs and I give you my word I’ll have them in combat in 24 hours. I promise!”
Since most of his pilots had flown Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes with the Eagle squadrons, and the mechanics had worked on Merlin engines, Blakeslee was able to keep his promise. In 24 hours’ time, the 4th launched its first mission with P-51s. Some of the participating pilots had had only about 30 minutes’ flying time in the new fighter.
When the Eighth Air Force mounted its first major daylight raid on Berlin on March 6, 1944, Blakeslee led the 4th Fighter Group escort. While B-17s and B-24s pounded the German capital, his Mustangs downed 13 Luftwaffe fighters for four losses. On April 11, General Dwight Eisenhower, Allied supreme commander, awarded Blakeslee the Distinguished Service Cross, also pinning the DSC on Captain Don Gentile, credited with 21 and two shared victories. Blakeslee later told reporters: “There’s nothing unusual in the missions. They all follow the same pattern. Either you get on Jerry’s tail or he gets on yours. That’s all.” Blakeslee felt ill at ease whenever he was interviewed.“It’s more fun facing a squadron of Jerries,” he told a New York Times reporter.
Blakeslee’s group set a record for the air war in the European theater by shooting down 33 German planes on April 8. By then a colonel, Blakeslee ranked so high within VIII Fighter Command that on one Berlin raid he was assigned to direct the entire escort force.
On June 21, his group undertook its most arduous assignment, escorting bombers on the first shuttle mission by way of Russia. Leading 60 Mustangs, Blakeslee rendezvoused with the bombers near the Polish border, repelled a force of Me-109s near Warsaw and arrived over an airfield in the Ukraine almost exactly on time, after seven hours in the air. He had navigated using 16 maps and a clock. From Russia, the 4th flew on to Lucera, Italy, where it completed two missions over the Balkans in support of the Fifteenth Air Force. During one of those raids on July 2, Blakeslee downed an Me-109G near Budapest—his last recorded victory of WWII. He led his group home three days later, receiving a second DSC for that shuttle mission.
By that time Blakeslee had been in action almost continuously for three years. Although he dreaded leaving the European air war behind, he was ordered to take a long overdue rest at the end of October 1944. Besides his two DSCs, he had received seven Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars, six Air Medals and the British DFC.
Blakeslee married Leola Fryer, whose name he had painted on the nose of his Spitfire in 1941. He went on to serve in postwar Germany, as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars, receiving the Legion of Merit, another DFC and four more Air Medals. He retired from the Air Force in 1965, moved to Florida and died on September 3, 2008.
Don Blakeslee has generally been acknowledged as one of WWII’s finest fighter group leaders. The RAF’s Johnny Johnson described him as “one of the best leaders ever to fight over Germany.” Aviation historian Walter J. Boyne noted that Blakeslee was one of the cadre of commanders who“blunted the edge of the Luftwaffe”and“went on to lead the progressive destruction of the German Air Force.”
Michael D. Hull is a journalist and military historian who writes from Enfield, Conn. Further reading: 4th Fighter Group ‘Debden Eagles,’ by Chris Bucholtz; The Debden Warbirds: The 4th Fighter Group in World War II, by Frank Speer; and 1000 Destroyed: The Life and Times of the 4th Fighter Group, by Grover C. Hall.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.